This is the commencement address I delivered last weekend. What an honor. The ceremony was outstanding, and I was glad to be able to share this moment with a special group of young people.
This revised version leaves out a section where I reminisced about specific memories from the years that I had this class of graduates as 7th and 8th graders.
And I couldn’t find a t-shirt cannon, so that was sort of a letdown.
Good afternoon graduates, parents, family members, friends, casual acquaintances, complete strangers, and random passersby who simply came in to get out of the rain and possibly score some free cake.
In 12 years of teaching, you, the members of the Class of 2011, stand out as some of my absolute favorites, and I look back at the time we spent together in 7th and 8th grade fondly.
I’ve kept up with you through the years, and I know that you sit before us today as a diverse, accomplished collection of scholars, musicians, singers, athletes, artists, and above all, quality global citizens. I would have expected nothing less.
So when Miriah visited me a few months ago on behalf of your class and asked me to deliver the commencement address, I was truly humbled. What an incredible honor. Knowing I was your first choice to share in this special occasion blew me away.
But then I found out I wasn’t your first choice.
As Mariah was leaving my classroom that day she extended the invitation to me, she dropped a piece of paper. Admittedly, a responsible individual would have picked it up without looking at it, chased Mariah down, and handed it back to her.
I’m not that individual.
Instead, I immediately unfolded the page and read it.
And then I immediately wished I hadn’t.
On the paper was a numbered list of potential graduation speakers. Rankings, basically. I was number 13.
A line had been drawn through the names of candidates 1-12, and there were notes next to each explaining why he or she or, in some cases, it had been eliminated as a prospective speaker.
I’m going to share this list with you.
Best-selling author Snooki from Jersey Shore: would love to speak in Wyoming but says she doesn’t have a passport so won’t be able to travel to a foreign country
Jared from Subway: busy eating fresh that day
Rebecca Black: can only make it if it’s on a Friday, Friday, Friday, yeah-yeah
Howie Mandel from Deal or No Deal: we want somebody bald but not that bald
Mr. Mirich: concerned that he’ll get all spazzy and gleeful on us; too animated (this is the principal)
Will Ferrell: already booked for Tongue River’s graduation (the other high school in the district)
Perry the Platypus from Phineas and Ferb: cannot speak; only makes that one tongue-clucking noise
The Spirit Rock out in front of the school: also incapable of speech
Lady Gaga: will be incubating that day; you know some of your parents are laughing and thinking to themselves “Now, Lady Gaga was their biology teacher, right?”
Lebron James: says he’s too intimidated; worried that Colby will dunk on him (one of the graduates)
Thor: unavailable; turns out he’s actually fictitious
Ke$ha: too glittery
Mr. McFadden: also too glittery, but probably available if it comes to that
A tray of cafeteria food
So although I may not have been your first choice, by default I did manage to get the gig. For that I would like to say thank you.
And the fact that I, of all people, am the one addressing you is a testament to the power of The Golden Rule.
There is no noteworthy accomplishment in my past or skill or ability I possess that qualifies me for this honor.
I’ve never invented anything nor won a major award nor had my name in a headline.
I can’t surgically repair a damaged brain or run a 4-minute mile or play jazz flute at a world-class level. Ironically, my only notable quality is one that every person is capable of: I’ve strived to treat the young people I’ve had the privilege to work with exactly as I prefer to be treated.
A few days ago my mother officially retired after 31 years as a middle school paraprofessional, and the example of empathy and respectfulness she modeled during that time is one that I carry with me. She is beloved and respected by the young people she worked with for 31 years not because she demanded that from them but because she earned it from them.
My mom never treated students differently because they were 11 or 12 or 13-years-old. She simply treated them like she felt every person deserves to be treated. That lesson she taught me has affected my life, and yet it really had nothing to do with her being a teacher.
There are teachers who aren’t actually teachers by profession all around us, and we uncover a world of possibility in terms of personal growth when we open up our minds to the idea that valuable lessons can be learned from anyone.
Maybe even from a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old.
You may have wondered what the deal is with the wagon at the front of the stage. The rock in that wagon is my gift to you courtesy of my sons, Nolan and Reed.
Now you’re thinking, “Wow. Bill Gates is probably speaking at a high school right now doling out iPads to the graduates like they’re Tootsie Roll Pops and we chose the guy who brought us a rock in a beat-down Radio Flyer wagon. Splendid.” But I believe there are a lot of lessons to be learned from that rock.
About two months ago on a day that looked pretty similar to today — cold and wet and dreary – we were exploring the property behind our house when Nolan and Reed spotted this rock (which you can see is actually a huge chunk of concrete) in the water down under a culvert.
Instantly, they had to have it. Instantly, I tried to talk them out of it, attempting to convince them that the rock was probably really happy in the middle of the creek with its other rock buddies, but they would not be denied. And after about an hour, the rock made it up under our deck, much to the delight of the boys, where it sat until I brought it here today.
So what lessons are to be learned from this rock?
1. Don’t ever have children. I’m joking, of course. My four kids are my world, and I only hope that I manage to teach them as much as they’re teaching me. And I know your parents feel the same. For everything they’ve taught you, you’ve taught them just as much if not more.
1A. Don’t let others decide what should or shouldn’t make you happy. I tried to talk the boys out of getting the rock. “It’s just a rock,” I told them. “It’s cold. It’s wet. It’s quite a ways back to the house. Just leave it. You’ll find another rock.” Their mom even offered them hot chocolate to come inside. But they wouldn’t let us define what they believed would fulfill them.
2. Seek out others who have a common vision and support yours. The boys gained strength in their quest through one another’s passion, and they ignored the negativity of others.
3. If it’s going to move you forward on your desired path, ask for help. Standing shin-deep in early March water, Nolan and Reed strained to lift that rock. They found sticks and tried to pry it up. It wasn’t happening. So they asked me to help. And I did.
4. Be a flexible thinker. Initially, the boys tried to pull the rock back to the house on a sled. When that didn’t work, they ran and got that wagon, and the two of them pulling together got it moving.
5. Don’t limit yourself. It never seemed to cross those two pipsqueak’s minds that they might not be able to get that rock back to the house. There were enough obstacles to overcome without the boys becoming obstacles to themselves by doubting the goal and their ability to achieve it.
6. Enjoy your accomplishment. And be grateful. The smiles on those two could hardly be contained by their chilled faces once they got that rock back to the house. They’d achieved what they’d set out to do even though it hadn’t been easy, which made it even more gratifying. And as they stood there shivering, they both said, “Thanks, Dad.”
7. Don’t be afraid to go look for another rock. About five minutes after Nolan and Reed got that rock home, it was forgotten. They were inside the house and on to other things. Maybe you’ll find that the thing you always believed would make you happy and fulfilled isn’t really that thing at all once you have it, but that makes the journey to discovering it no less valuable. It just means it’s time to go find another one. And it’s never too late to start searching. Heck, you might be 37-years-old before you realize it’s time to look for another rock.
Class of 2011, your rocks are out there. I know you’ll find the one that’s right for you.
And if you’d like to take this one, please feel free. I don’t plan on hauling it home again.
Congratulations, graduates, and best of luck in wherever your rock hunting takes you.